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As city, state drop mask requirements, Chicago schools face period of mask limbo

Students work on computers together as teachers look over their shoulders.

Chicago Public Schools will transition into mask optional in the near future, officials said.

Lauren Miller for Chalkbeat

This story has been updated to include CDC data for Cook County.

Days after the city and state lifted their mask mandates, Chicago Public Schools is signaling it could soon be moving to make masks optional, aligning itself with federal guidance but potentially setting district leadership up for another confrontation with its powerful teachers union.

In an email to parents Wednesday evening, CEO Pedro Martinez said universal masking is still in place in Chicago schools, but the district expected to move to a “mask-optional model for all students and staff in the near future.” The district declined to clarify the timeline. 

“This change will be consistent with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding masking, and guided by rapidly declining case counts within CPS and the City of Chicago,” Martinez and Bogdana Chkoumbova, chief education officer, said in the letter to parents.

In a letter to members, the teachers union argued that its agreement would require masking through the end of the school year. 

“We are all in a better place with COVID-19 today than we were a month ago,” CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates said, “but we also understand that schools are congregate settings, and less than 25% of students in many are unvaccinated.” 

During a rally outside City Hall Monday, some parents and activists with the People’s Response Network voiced support for the mask mandate, encouraging the district to uphold its safety agreement and require masks through the remainder of the school year.

The district has stood firm on its mask stance amid legal challenges, citing a legal agreement with its teachers union forged after an acrimonious battle over inadequate safety mitigations. 

Last week, the CDC said schools could drop masks unless COVID cases and hospitalizations were high. Cook County, where Chicago is located, is considered low transmission, according to the county’s data. Under the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, however, the county’s transmission level is considered “substantial.” The guidance comes as many districts across the country and elsewhere in the state have already moved to go mask-optional in the classroom.

For the past month, Gov. J.B Pritzker has been battling in court to keep Illinois’ emergency school mask mandate in place even as he lifted a mask requirement across the state. Earlier this month, a judge granted a temporary restraining order against masking, vaccination, and testing protocols in schools. Pritzker lost an appeal to get that judgment overturned last week.

After the Illinois Supreme Court declined to take up the case, Pritzker said students and staff would no longer be required to wear masks at Illinois schools. 

The back-and-forth over masking has caused confusion on the ground and chaos in some Illinois school board rooms, with late night meetings and votes stirring heated debate.

The end of mandates has also put the state’s child care providers in limbo. Earlier this week, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, which licenses child care providers, said that children and staff at early learning centers were no longer required to wear masks, but that it was up to individual sites to decide. 

That has presented a quandary for some providers, since vaccinations have not been approved yet for children under age 5. 

Sonja Crum Knight, chief programs and impact officer at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, which oversees child care and after-school programs for about 2,000 children across multiple sites in the city, said her organization will continue to require masks — and quickly communicated that to parents on Monday when the city mandates lifted. 

Several factors weighed in the leadership’s decision, she said, including status as a federal Head Start grantee (the federal government has not technically lifted mandates for its centers) and the fact that most children in Carole Robertson’s care are not yet eligible for the vaccine. Also, quite simply, masking has proven effective so far and helped keep classrooms open, she said. 

“We’ve been rooted in masking,” said Knight. “It’s not an abstract arbitrary thing, it’s keeping everybody safe, and that’s keeping us open.”

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools said the decision to move toward making masks optional was made because of the low number of positive cases at schools and declining hospitalization rates.

About 22% of all 5- to 11-year-olds in the district have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 34% have received at least one dose, but uptake varies widely by neighborhood. About 54% of 12- to 17-years were fully vaccinated as of Feb. 14, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat Chicago.

The mask-optional announcement comes a week after Chicago Board of Education members approved a resolution during February’s board meeting to maintain COVID safety mitigations, which include a mask mandate.

Martinez told board members at February’s board meeting that he predicted there would be a day for the district to go mask-optional, possibly before the end of the year. Still, he cautioned against lifting the mandate too early.

During the board meeting, a dozen parents challenged the district to drop the mask mandate. 

In affirming the board’s commitment to masks, board president Miguel del Valle last week said that while COVID cases were improving within the district, vaccination rates among students lagged behind the city.

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said being “cautious was the right thing to do,” especially since the pandemic had disparate impacts on communities of color.

Samantha Smylie contributed to this report.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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